Dear families,

I want to share my story with you to help you better understand how Empowering Kids Perham began, and why it means so much to me and my family.

In 2004 my son Matt passed away suddenly in an accident. My world stopped, and honestly, I wasn’t concerned if it started again or not. Sometimes I hear the word “grief” and I wonder, how can so much sadness be put into just five letters? I checked out of reality and placed myself on auto-pilot for a long time.

In 2007 my son Tommy, who was just graduating from high school, told me that he and his girlfriend were having a baby. I was so upset. I didn’t think I had it in me to help raise a child or to be any sort of a Grandma, as I was still so lost.

When my grandson Levi was born, I was smitten. He was my reason to smile again and I always tell him he is my sunshine. I tell others he is my salvation. He is both.

As Levi grew, I began to notice little things that made me worry a bit. Something was off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. He started lining his toys up, and struggling with transitions and strangers.

When Levi was about two years old he had an ear ache and was not getting better. I was spending the day with him and on a whim I called the clinic in Fergus Falls, where we went to see Dr. Magnuson that afternoon. Levi had never been to that clinic before. While we were in the waiting room, another little boy tried to talk to Levi and Levi threw a toy at him. I realized things like that seemed to be happening a lot lately.

As we were waiting in the exam room for the doctor to come in, he started talking in a little language he had, gibberish I guess. I heard footsteps outside the door and then they stopped, and Dr. Magnuson just stood outside the door and listened to Levi talking. He entered the room and after giving Levi his physical exam, he said to me, “He needs to be assessed for special needs.”

“Oh my God.” I thought. My world stopped again.

I went home that night and started researching autism, and I knew. And I was terrified.

I called one of my dearest friends, Peggy Avelsgaard. She worked for Freshwater Education and said she would be on Levi’s assessment team. Once the team completed their assessment they called me to say that Levi’s score placed him on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Well, I spent about a million more hours researching. I didn’t know what to do and I just kept thinking that time was being wasted, he needed help right then.

That same year, we went for another assessment at Mayo Clinic, and his medical diagnosis was Pervasive Developmental Disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD – NOS). Since that time, he has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Freshwater Education started services for him right away, and they were amazing. He also received OT and possibly PT at the hospital, but I can’t quite recall. At the time, I kept asking, “What else can we do?” The answer was always, “Do as much for him as you can and do what you think is best for your child/grandchild.” We didn’t know what that meant, and there were no services specifically for children with autism in the Perham area. Such frustration.

Christi Stoll, Office Manager of Empowering Kids, and I became friends when we shared stories and tears about our shared struggles. Her son had similar issues to Levi’s, and she drove all over Minnesota seeking a correct diagnosis and treatment for him. I’ve always felt truly comfortable talking to Christi.

In 2016 an idea came to me – start an autism center in Perham. I sent Christi a message because I knew she would be on board and she told me that was her dream…BINGO!!

We both had the same points we wanted to focus on: the kids’ strengths, what they already excel at, what makes them happy and what they can contribute to society. We wanted to help them and their families. Autism can be difficult and exhausting, and as hard as families may try to do their best, they can be left feeling a sense of failure. These kids can be so amazing, and we want to let them find ways to shine.

Since Levi has started receiving services we have seen promising progress. Levi now makes eye-contact, starts conversations and is learning to deal with social situations. Others take things like these for granted, but for me they are show-stopping.

Our small group has worked really hard over the last year to get this program up and running. Our teaching staff has the expertise to provide high quality therapeutic programming for children with autism and also has a passion for helping children be happy and successful! My husband Kenny has always been 100% supportive of us as well, he has such a special heart and I am so fortunate to have him.

I think of my experience during those early days with Levi, and how much brighter his future looks today. I wish the same for kids on the spectrum and their families.

Levi truly is my sunshine and now I have a second grandson, my daughter Amanda’s son August, who has made that sun shine even brighter. A friend who lost her grandson once told me that the sun will shine again, just not as bright. So true. My sun shines again through my little boys and I am so thankful.

Thank you for letting me share my story.

Kim Nelson, Founder of Empowering Kids Perham